Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Over the past several decades, Vietnam’s development of a market economy has generated class-specific patterns of anxiety in Ho Chi Minh City. An urban precariat is besieged by “social problems”: homelessness, substance abuse, human trafficking, and family breakdown. Meanwhile, newly prosperous middle and upper classes strive to develop the human capital and psychological fortitude to realize their own potential and contribute to national development. This context provides fertile terrain for the emerging field of social work in Vietnam. Social workers seek to empower the urban precariat to become the kinds of selves who are able to engage in self-scrutiny and self-improvement in order to achieve desired outcomes. But these interactions also establish the social worker’s own privileged personhood as therapeutic expert who applies scientific knowledge through interpersonal and affective acts of care.
Drawing on participant observation, interviews, and archival research conducted from 2010 to the present in university and professional educational settings in southern Vietnam, this paper considers how social work both acts across and works to naturalize class divides by inculcating ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Social work in Vietnam is simultaneously part of a global rise in therapeutic technologies of the self and a particularly situated project to craft appropriately Vietnamese personhoods. While social work’s shaping of selves resembles neoliberal dynamics of medicalized subjectivation, this paper also traces genealogies of change and continuity in Vietnamese notions of self, status, and precarity across several eras: French colonialism, the Republic of Vietnam (1954-1975), postwar socialism, and market socialism.